Nov 12, 2007

'Please, sir, I want some more'

How many of you still remember the story of Oliver Twist that we came across during our school days? Poor soul, he asked for another portion of gruel and got the thrashing of his life by the well-fed gentlemen of the workhouse.

This classic by Dickens is relevant still today with many Olivers still toiling in some sweat-shops, still beaten to pulp, still under-fed, orphaned and still exploited by the Fagins of the world.

The recent news-article which highlighted that young children were stitching clothes for clothing retailer Gap Inc. in a New Delhi factory has created furor abroad and made the company to scamper for cover. Britain's Observer newspaper reported that it had found children making clothes with Gap labels in a filthy sweat-shop in New Delhi. It quoted the children as saying they were from poor parts of India and had been sold to the sweatshop by their impoverished families.

Imagine a company that has its slogan as hippy as Peace. Love. Gap being involved in something as demeaning as Child Labor. When I was going through the news article I was filled with a sense of déjà vu… to those dramatic discussions we have had during my MBA days about CHILD Labor vis-a-vis The Right to Earn Your Living.

Merely stating/identifying the problem is only half the job done… the logical step forward is to provide solutions. Keeping it in limbo would not only aggravate the already burning issue of child labor it would make them more prone to inhuman work-conditions and exploitation.

One may argue against child labor and continue doing so… but what we need to understand is the ground condition… Can we possibly compare and contrast the living standards in an opulent society to the bashti dwellers in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia and India? Can mere tokenism of ‘human-rights’ activists ameliorate the basic needs of the shanty-dwellers for whom the only comfort is that they are earning enough to keep the wolves at bay. Who needs education for education’s sake? My point of view is that why do we need to put an end to their ‘right to live’ so that they can enjoy ‘human rights’. If we ban all the sweat-shops… let us also provide them some sort of social security… if we talk of education then let us first feed them. What we need to remember is that--‘Education on an empty stomach doesn’t make us more human than we already are!’

Imagine a family consisting of 5-6 members, impoverished and what harm it is for them to lend some of their children to work in those industries so that they can stop themselves from starving to death. 20-25 Rs. per day in USA might be a pittance but in countries where many people are living below poverty line they can’t complain much. Economically speaking the demand-supply gap comes into play… for every child you intend to take away from the sweat-shops there will be another set of kids ready to fill-in the space.

This issue will be there as long as we don’t fight the real issue… that of poverty. Child labor is just a symptom that we’ve failed miserably to nip in the bud. What does a person do when he is desperate to survive? Quite logically he’ll try to grab every morsel that comes his way. When we decide morality (a pet project of the intelligentsia) do we think about the greatest dharma… that of feeding a hungry body? What’s the meaning of God, rights, good vs. bad, education if you can’t even manage to keep you skin and bones together? I don’t give a hoot to those who says I’m being materialistic… I believe that there is no greater deed than feeding an empty stomach… everything else follows.
Abolish child labor, provide them education, give them food and only then one will get my vote for the issue. Otherwise it’s all intellectual Bull****

The MNC companies are also to be blamed in some way or the other… in order to shore up their margins they squeeze up the contractors in the 3rd world countries and these sub-contractors take up such work due to heavy competition, knowing very well that there are hundred other units who are willing to do the same job at even slightly lesser fee. No able to cope with the expenses, these contractors pass on the burden to sub-contractors who in –turn employ children to finish off the work. Children are nimble enough o do the intricate design work on the clothes and their wages are abominably low as compared to the adults. Thus runs the vicious cycle and what the affluent connoisseurs of haute couture ends up wearing is actually made by not-so-fortunate kids in such places as Bangladesh, India etc.
Do we expect the Govt. to compensate/rehabilitate the unfortunate children? We all know the plight of the Sivakasi children who have seen such horrendous days working as bonded labor in the cracker industry… and despite media uproar nothing substantial has been done and my hunch is that nothing will be done for many many years to come.

A country over-populated with a million hungry mouths brings along with it its own sets of priorities. We are at one hand a ‘nuclear’ super-power, a ‘wannabe’ economic superpower and on the other hand we’ve child labors, communal riots, and slums. This dichotomy is very evident and circumstances makes mince-meats of ‘political-correctness’ and ‘human-rights’. Whose side would you take when a young, widowed mother of an infant takes to prostitution to feed her baby? Is it violation of ‘human-rights’ or just the intrinsic human tendency to ‘adapt’ and survive depending on the situation.

The road forward for these MNCs who have turned towards cost-cutting by off-shoring their work should comprise of a few important measures. If implemented in good faith and stringent follow-up would help to solve atleast a part of the problem.

  • Ensure that children below 14 are not employed
  • Good working environment
  • Expert supervision
  • Guaranteed and transparent wage structure; reduce role of middle-men
  • Minimum work hour as stipulated by the Factories Act
  • Provide for vocational training/education program during the weekends
  • Medical facilities should be provided
  • Games and recreation should be provided
  • Job should be ensured when these children grows up as young adults
  • Surprise visits by Inspectors to ensure that the rules are followed and strict penalties for default on any count

It is understandable that these MNCs also have their own sets of problem but they can’t absolve themselves of their responsibilities. The Govt. can provide them with tax sops for such an initiative which will make the situation a Win-Win one for all concerned.

In India people have grown up thinking that rules can be bent as much as they can and corruption is the de-facto social lubricant. Rules are only on paper with little Govt. intervention and the onus lies on them to monitor the implementation of the stated rules.

So, as long as we don’t tackle these problems in the right earnest the Olivers of this world will continue to ask for more, and then get beaten for exactly the same reason.

1 comment:

sukomal said...

good that u wrote on this i believe the biggest responsibility lies wth all the hundreds of government agencies which are running to provide the basic amenities to all indians...Ofcourse MNCS have to fix their act too but u cant expect them to be proactive in this entirely the responsibility of the government and the society at large to ensure that no child is in a position desperate enough so as to force him to kill his childhood...